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Abortion debate goes mainstream in Malta

MSIDA, Malta — The controversial debate on Maltas stringent abortion laws has shifted from Facebook ..

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MSIDA, Malta — The controversial debate on Maltas stringent abortion laws has shifted from Facebook forums to the highest levels of politics just in time for the European election.

In the weeks leading up to Saturdays ballot, the opposition Nationalist Party took out billboard adverts across the island championing the partys anti-abortion message. Its leader Adrian Delia called the European election a “referendum on abortion” — accusing the ruling Labour Party of secretly supporting greater abortion rights.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was pressed to respond, and said the government doesnt have a mandate to change abortion laws. Ninety-five percent of Maltese do not agree with abortion in the first 12 weeks of gestation (a health service available nearly everywhere else in Europe), according to the most recent polls.

In a country with one of the highest number of social media users and some of the strictest abortion laws in the EU, abortion has always been a hot topic on Facebook forums. After Irelands major shift this year, Maltas abortion-rights activists have ramped up pressure to take that debate mainstream — and say they are gaining traction.

“Its moving faster now than Ive seen in 10 years,” said Lara Dimitrijevic, the director of Maltas Womens Rights Foundation.

“Whether they vote green, whether they vote left, whether they vote right, center-left or center-right, the people we hear, they do not want abortion” — Alfred Sant, Labour MEP

“Abortion has raised its head here in almost every election since the mid- to late-90s,” said Antoine Borg, an independent MEP candidate, adding that its long been considered political suicide in the country. “But the tide of popular opinion is changing too. In days gone by, we would have never had a feminist group openly arguing for abortion. We wouldnt have had a group of doctors arguing the same point. Now we do.”

Those in favor argue Muscat has a big enough cushion of support — his party leads the Nationalists by 15 percentage points, according to a poll this month — to speak out in favor of abortion rights, and move in line with socialist parties across the bloc. Both anti-abortion and abortion-rights campaigners say they believe some Labour politicians may be personally in favor of changing the law. In a small but significant shift, the prime minister said during a media interview this monththat its time for a “sober discussion” on the “important subject.”

Yet the ruling party remains steadfast in its position. Labour MEP Alfred Sant, a former prime minister who has been knocking on doors as he bids for reelection, said over and over that “this is not an issue” for voters.

“Whether they vote green, whether they vote left, whether they vote right, center left or center right,” Sant said, “the people we hear, they do not want abortion.”

Building a movement

Mina Tolu has heard the phrase “political suicide” a lot in the past few months.

Driving around the island, the Maltese MEP candidate and French fellow candidate Antoine Tifine had a routine for getting their message across in the late hours of a warm Friday night. When they found a good spot, Tolu pulled the car over and Tifine jumped out to tie a couple of campaign posters (a flyer glued to recycled hand-cut carboard) to poles, some of which ended up upside down in the rush.

“Were just trying to make some noise,” said Tolu.

Tolu, who identifies as a nonbinary trans person, is a big name in Maltese LGBTQ activism — famously calling out Hollywood actress Emma Watson three years ago for using “she” pronouns, when Tolu uses “they” and “them.”

Running as an MEP for the countrys Green party, Democratic Alternative, Tolu was the first to mention abortion in the election, calling for a “respectful debate” in a Facebook video that went viral in February. “Why cant we discuss this in a way that goes beyond these posts and comments on Facebook? Why is it an issue thats being ignored?”

Shortly after, one of the founders of Democratic Alternative left the party in protest to start his own MEP campaign.

Tolu has practically no chance of winning a seat in the European Parliament. But after the U.K.-based Abortion Support Network announced at the start of the year that it would extend its services to Malta, helping women traveling for an abortion, Tolus video was significant.

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat says his government doesnt have the mandate necessary to change abortion laws | Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP via Getty Images

In March, the Womens Rights Foundation and other civil society organizations announced a “pro-choice coalition” for the election calling for abortion laws to change. A group of 50 doctors supporting abortion rights formed in May.

Dimitrijevic, sitting in the shade at a café in Valletta, suggested the Nationalist Partys strong intervention has in some ways legitimized their campaign. Much of the partys messaging seeks to argue that abortion could become a reality in Malta if people vote against the conservatives.

After the success of Irish activists, their Maltese counterparts are “employing the same tools,” said Mara Clarke from the Abortion Support Network. But Malta is a long way behind. “Ive been joking and saying that its 50 years behind where Ireland was 10 years ago,” Clarke said. “But its probably 10 or 20 years behind where Ireland was 10 years ago.”

She added, “But I think things will move faster. I hope anyway.”

“It would never be accepted over here. It would be the red light in Malta” — Ivan Grech Mintoff, Euroskeptic MEP candidate

Anti-abortion activists are getting louder too. Ivan Grech Mintoff, an MEP candidate standing for the Euroskeptic Alliance for Change (AB) party, spearheaded a pledge to enshrine Maltas strict abortion laws into the constitution. The Nationalist Party signed it, as did the far-right Maltese Patriots Movement (MPM) and center-left Democratic Party (PD) — although PD candidates have since raised concerns. Labour and Tolus AD were the two parties that did not sign the pledge.

Grech Mintoff also created a Facebook group against abortion that gathered more than 21,000 members in three weeks. He sees that as clear proof Malta does not support abortion.

“It would never be accepted over here,” Grech Mintoff said. “It would be the red light in Malta.”

On a lonely island

Why is Malta an outlier on abortion in Europe? Some abortion rights activists say its the Catholic Churchs influence; some say its how small the country is; some say its simple patriarchy.

For others, even asking the question means you dont understand Malta.

“Remember we were only very recently [a member of] the EU, so you couldnt go [work] anywhere in other countries, and we didnt have many foreigners coming here,” said Francesca Fenech Conti, the founder of the Women for Women Facebook group. “We were an island alone for many years in the middle of the Mediterranean, totally ruled by religion.”

This, Conti said, creates a closeness but also a “society that is always judging you.” Conti wrote her university thesis on women who had unplanned pregnancies due to contraception failure. She spoke to one woman about her visit to the doctor 10 years ago for a pregnancy test.

After getting the results, her doctor told her: “Youre pregnant! I told your mother!” Conti recalled.

“Everybody knows each other,” Conti said.

An anti-abortion billboard in Malta | Jillian Deutsch/POLITICO

The countrys stance on abortion has held even as it became a beacon for progressive LGBTQ policies. After decades of grassroots campaigning, Malta legalized gay marriage in 2017 and offers gay and lesbian couples access to IVF — it was ranked at the top of 49 European countries in the latest Rainbow Europe Map.

The country legalized divorce in 2011 and the morning-after pill became available in 2016. Abortion remains illegal in any circumstance.

Its not possible to know the total number of women who have illegal abortions, but according to estimates cited by the Womens Rights Foundation, around 200 women order abortion pills online and nearly 400 travel abroad for an abortion each year.

One woman, Fleur (not her real name), did so 15 years ago after she got pregnant from a one-night stand. At the time she was a student, holding down two jRead More – Source

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NSW COVID-19 hospitalisations pass 1,000 as cases continue to balloon across Australia

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sbs– New South Wales has recorded another 18,278 COVID-19 cases and two deaths as the state’s outbreak continues to surge.

Sunday’s case numbers are slightly lower than Saturday’s 22,577.

The state recorded two deaths from the virus, while 1,066 people are hospitalised, up from 901 on Saturday. There are 83 in intensive care.

At the peak of the Delta outbreak, on 21 September, there were 1,266 people hospitalised with infections, and 244 in intensive care.

Testing numbers to 8pm on the first day of 2022 were down to 90,019, a drop from 119,278 on New Year’s Eve.

The high case numbers come as Premier Dominic Perrottet continues to focus on hospitalisation and intensive care numbers rather than the daily case total.

Despite comprising about six per cent of the population, unvaccinated people make up the majority of those in intensive care, Health Minister Brad Hazzard says.

To ensure hospital systems can cope, asymptomatic health workers who are in isolation due to being a close contact of a positive case will be permitted to leave isolation in “exceptional circumstances”, NSW Health announced on Friday night.

Victoria posts 7,172 cases, extreme heat closes testing sites

The first day of 2022 hasn’t been kind to 7,172 Victorians, the state’s latest residents to contract COVID-19.

A further three virus-related deaths have also been recorded for 1 January.

However the number of Victorian coronavirus patients in hospital care remains relatively stable at 472, up 19 on Saturday’s figure and 48 beyond the seven-day average.

Of them, 52 are classified as active ICU cases and 22 are in need of ventilation.

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton’s daily update said on Sunday community sampling had revealed 76 per cent of all samples collected over the Christmas period were the Omicron variant. Further testing to confirm this is being undertaken over the next week.

In total, Victoria is managing 31,461 active COVID-19 cases.

Health authorities says virus testers managed to process 48,252 results in the 24 hours to Saturday evening.

The state is 93 per cent fully vaccinated for everyone aged 12 and over.

Some 7,442 infections were reported on Saturday, another pandemic record. There were 51 actively infectious patients in intensive care and 21 ventilated.

Extreme heat caused the closure of eight of the state’s testing sites on Saturday.

Queensland records 3,587 new cases

Queensland has added 3,587 infections to its COVID-19 caseload as a new indoor mask mandate comes into effect across the state.

Some 16,688 Queenslanders now have the virus. However, hospital numbers remain low with 112 patients in care, five of them in ICUs and none requiring ventilation.

Health authorities say testers processed almost 34,000 results in the 24 hours to 7pm on Saturday.

Queensland is 86.60 per cent fully vaccinated for everyone 16 and over.

Chief Health Officer John Gerrard says despite a jump of more than 1,300 cases in a day, he’s not surprised. In part, the increase is related to a change in reporting protocols which saw case figures taken from a 12-hour window on Friday.

“This number is probably a bit smaller than we had expected,” he said in Brisbane on Sunday of the latest figures.

“It probably (also) relates to testing over the holiday period and so it will not be a surprise at all that in the next couple of days we see a significant increase in cases as more samples are tested and more people come forward.”

Dr Gerrard said what experts were now seeing with the virus was that it was “a vastly different disease” to that which was spreading in the community last year and prior to vaccination.

“With a degree of contagiousness of this virus, we are going to be seeing very large numbers of cases, even though the severity is clearly going to be less,” he said.

“We are going to see very large numbers of cases and a small proportion of a very large number (who fall ill) is still a large number.”

Masks were declared compulsory in “virtually all indoor spaces” in Queensland from 1am on Sunday.

Previously masks were only required indoors at supermarkets, shops, on public transport and ride share as well as airports and planes, cinemas and theatres in Queensland.

They now need to be worn at workplaces unless unsafe to do so, pubs, clubs and cafes unless when seated, indoor stadiums and sport arenas, libraries, hair dressers and nail salons, and medical centre waiting areas.

Queenslanders were also urged to return to work-from-home arrangements where possible.

SA hospitalisations ‘very much within capacity’

South Australia, meanwhile, recorded 2,298 COVID-19 cases on New Years Day from 21,140 tests.

The newest caseload is up from 2,108, while hospitalisations have also risen by 11.

There are currently 82 people in hospital, Premier Steven Marshall said on Sunday, a number which he said was “still very much within our current capacity”.

Seven people are in ICU.

“We see a lot of admissions but also a lot of people are leaving hospital on a daily basis after their conditions have stabilised,” Mr Marshall told reporters on Sunday.

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US follows UK’s lead and shortens isolation for healthcare workers who test positive for Covid-19

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independent– Healthcare workers who test positive for Covid-19 and are asymptomatic only need to isolate for seven days, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said.

The CDC reduced the recommended isolation time from 10 days in part due to concerns that the highly transmissible Omicron variant could cause even greater staffing shortages at hospitals.

In new guidance released on Thursday, the CDC said infected healthcare workers could return to work after a week as long as they were asymptomatic and produced a negative test.

The US recorded 261,339 new cases on Thursday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Earlier this week, the UK Health Security Agency announced that essential workers would be allowed to return after a seven-day isolation period amid a worsening staffing crisis in hospitals.

In a statement, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said it was updating guidelines in response to an “anticipated surge” in patients due to the Omicron variant.

“Our priority, remains prevention—and I strongly encourage all healthcare personnel to get vaccinated and boosted.”

Dr Walensky added that health care workers who were fully vaccinated, including with a booster shot, did not need to isolate after a high-risk exposure.

On Friday, New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced that essential workers who tested positive could return to their jobs after five days if they were fully vaccinated and asymptomatic, and had not had a fever within the past 72 hours.

“This is not Delta, or the first variant,” Ms Hochul said during a live address.

“This is Omicron, and thus far it has demonstrated it’s not as severe in its impact, and therefore we want to make sure that our critical workforce, who we’ve relied on from the beginning, can get back to work.”

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Health

Covid booster jab triggers immune response in days, not weeks, say scientists

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independent– Those who receive a Covid booster jab can expect to mount an immune response in a matter of days – not weeks, scientists say.

The boosters have been shown to restore the body’s immunological defences against Omicron, which appears capable of infecting those who are double-jabbed.

While it takes up to two weeks to prime the immune system against Covid after a first dose, the effects of a booster jab start to be felt within two to three days, experts believe.

“The immunity generated after a booster jab will rise much quicker than the first immune response,” said Gary McLean, a professor in molecular immunology at London Metropolitan University.

That’s because crucial memory cells activated after the first dose will still be present in the body, Prof McLean explained, and therefore “do not require the two-week activation and instruction phase they initially go through”.

These memory cells – T and B – are responsible for hunting down infected cells and producing antibodies that stop the virus from gaining entry in the first place.

Their continuing presence means the immune system is on high alert and ready to spring back into action at the earliest sight of the virus, or anything that mimics it.

“That can then translate into boosted antibody levels and other increases in active T cells within days of the booster,” said Prof McLean. “It is likely that maximal immune activity is reached seven days after the booster.”

Professor Charles Bangham, an immunologist and co-director of the institute of infection at Imperial College London, said that in a secondary or subsequent immune response, T cells and antibodies should start to be detectable within “two to three days” of a booster.

The boosters appear to be 70 per cent effective against omicron infection – and are thought to offer even higher protection from hospitalisation and death – but scientists are concerned that the UK rollout won’t be able to keep up with the spread of the variant.

Doubling at a rate of every two days, Omicron has fuelled a sudden lift in national cases. On Thursday, 88,376 new Covid cases were reported, setting a new pandemic record for the second day running.

However, infections are thought to be running at far higher levels. The UK Health Security Agency said it expects there to be more than one million infections a day by the end of the month.

The government, meanwhile, has set the ambitious target of rolling out one million boosters a day to counter Omicron, and intends to have offered all eligible adults one by the close of the year. Some 745,183 third doses were given on Thursday, bringing the national total to 25.4 million.

Recent research from Israel suggests that rates of infection, severe disease and death from Delta were reduced after three to seven days post-boost – but reduced more after 12 days post-boost – when using the Pfizer vaccine for all three jabs.

The UK’s Cov-Boost study, which investigated the benefits of a booster jab among people who had received doses of the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine, also pointed to an increased immune response by day seven.

“This ‘secondary immune response’ is more rapid than observed following the ‘priming’ course of vaccination, when the body takes 14 days or longer to ‘prime’ the antibody-producing B cells to produce antibody against the virus,” said Penny Ward, a visiting professor in pharmaceutical medicine at King’s College London.

“However when virus antigens [an immune-triggering structure] are ‘re-encountered’ – either by a boosting shot of vaccine or by exposure to infection – these cells react very rapidly to produce antibody more quickly.”

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